It's almost back-to-school time, when our thoughts turn to new teachers, backpacks ... and, potentially, how to contend with a bad case of comparisonitis: That is, your kid's.
"My daughter had to start in a new school last year," explains Jeanine Groebe*, mother of Martina, 12, who lives in central New Jersey. "I'd recently gotten divorced, and we moved."
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One afternoon, Martina brought a couple of girls home with her, and her mom was thrilled she was making new friends—until she overheard her daughter explaining that they had had to live in this small apartment because "their big house had been 'broken' in Hurricane Sandy."
The only problem? There was no big house. Martina had made the whole story up.
"When the other girls left, I asked her why she lied about where we live," says Groebe, "and she admitted she was embarrassed by our new apartment because her new friends all live in big houses."
Groebe felt bad that her daughter was upset enough to lie, she says, and explained that they were lucky to have a nice place to live.
Welcome to the age of pint-size comparisonitis.
Where Our Kids Get Their Ideas
Let's face it: We all want our children to have everything they could ever possibly want. It's hard to deny them anything. We feel this way out of love, but we may also use gifts to assuage our guilt for not being able to spend as much time with them as we feel we should. Some moms are generous just because they can afford to be.
Over 76% of parents say their spending on kids has gotten out of control. But are we, ourselves, part of the problem, and what role does where we choose to live and raise our children play?
When my children were very young, they attended a prestigious private school in New York City. One afternoon, I picked them up, and for a special treat we stopped at an ice cream cart right outside the school. My two kids each ordered a small cone, and the driver said, “That'll be $10.” Meanwhile the price chart on the side of the truck read: "$2.25 per cone." When I questioned the driver, he said, “Your kids go to that school. You're rich. That's the special price for these students.” I was stunned.
I couldn't stop thinking about the ice cream incident. “Is this how the world looks at children because of where they go to school?” I wondered. What kind of lessons were my kids learning? How were they going to grow up to view themselves? This began my ongoing conversations with my children, which went something like this: “People are not their money.”
It's a conversation many parents need to figure out how to have.
“Unfortunately, the society that we live in reinforces the fact that our worth is judged based upon what we have, not on who we are," says Heidi Kiebler-Brogan, MA, a licensed professional counselor.
So, what's a loving parent educating her kids in a wealthy zip code to do? I was on the right track, she says, with my explanation: As parents, we need to instill lessons of self-worth. "Unfortunately, we can't buy self-worth or measure it by a bank account," she explains. "Self-worth comes from the parent-child relationship and develops when we spend time with our children, not money.”
How To Know If Your Kid's Out of Control
"I have two daughters and they fight about everything, but they are especially brutal when it comes to getting gifts," says Alan Michaels*, father of Kerry, 15, and Melissa, 11, who lives in Colorado. "They're really terrible—and we taught them to know better. I dread birthdays and Christmas because they are so ungrateful."
“Raising children has become a business, one that requires an incredible financial investment—tutors, coaches, specialized classes, elaborate birthday parties."
Last Christmas, Michaels says, his mother gave Melissa a camera that had belonged to his father—her grandfather. "He used that camera to take pictures at every family gathering," he explains. "But she unwrapped it and said, 'What am I supposed to do with that? All my friends would make fun of me for having that old thing. It isn't even digital!'"
He was mortified. His mother was hurt. Michaels made his daughter apologize to her grandmother, then told her to turn the camera over to him—he was honored to own it. But it still didn't do the trick: "Later that evening," he says ruefully, "I heard the girls making fun of the gifts they had received. Maybe I didn't handle the situation right."
As a parent, Michaels was complicit in the incident, says Kiebler-Brogan. "There were really no consequences for the girls' ungratefulness, so it is likely this will continue. This is not a simple case of getting a ‘time-out.’ " She fears that he, as a parent, may have unwittingly conveyed his value system to his kids. "He has to reassess the messages he is sending to his children," she says.
Overparenting: When We Give Too Much
Part of our kids being hyperaware of what they have, as compared to their friends, may be born of our own good intentions: Simply put, in this, the age of overparenting—we're putting more into raising them than any generation before.
“Raising children has become a business, one that requires an incredible financial investment—tutors, coaches, specialized classes, elaborate birthday parties, etc.," says Kiebler-Brogan. "Parents measure their own self-worth by what they can give/provide for their children. By giving things to their kids they feel better about themselves."
Yet all those “things” we buy do little to make them feel truly good about themselves, say the experts. Rather, kids feel valued and important when parents give of themselves to be with them.
It can leave many families walking a razor's edge while trying to decide how best to enrich their offspring.
"My husband and I adopted our son—our dream come true," says Alice Jacobs*, mother of Jun, 13. "We want to give this beautiful boy everything, and we are always tempted." The family, who live in Michigan, have a nice home and drive decent cars, she says, but she and her husband are entrepreneurs. "Like others in our position, there are abundant times and lean times," she explains. "We agreed early on that the best thing we could give our son, besides love, would be to teach him to be financially literate."
Jun goes to a great school and does lots of extracurricular activities—including sports and private piano lessons—but he also keeps a budget, does chores around the house and earns extra money by gardening and shoveling for neighbors.
"Over time, we even managed to teach grandparents and other relatives that spoiling is not a good thing," Jacobs laughs.
Not long ago, the three of them were returning home, when Jun announced: “All my friends must be so jealous of me!” His parents were momentarily horrified: Had all of their hard work been for naught? Then Jun finished his thought, saying, “I have the most loving family in the world!”
Instilling those values is no small feat, says Kiebler-Brogan, especially when making kids abide by a budget—not to mention re-educating grandparents—doesn't tend to be popular. “This is a perfect example of a family who has worked hard together to convey their value system to their children and serve as role models," she says. "It’s not always easy when you may be bucking norms of societal and familial pressures.”
When Comparisonitis Cuts Deep
Sometimes the difference in what you have versus what those around you do is made apparent by others. For one family in Long Island, NY, it took the form of brutal bullying.
"We're a really average family," says Leah Simon*, mother of CeeCee, 9. "I'm a teacher and my husband works for a plumbing company. Our daughter is a really sweet kid."
Due to our schedules, she says, her husband always drives CeeCee to school. Then, one day, CeeCee began behaving oddly and didn't want to go. They were concerned, but she assured her parents everything was O.K.
Then, the next morning CeeCee asked her mom if she could drive her to school instead. She explained their schedules to her daughter and why it was easier if her dad took her. CeeCee got really quiet before blurting out, “I hate it when daddy takes me to school!” Then she burst into tears.
“The kids all laugh and make fun of me because they see me get out of daddy's work truck," she sobbed. "They all call me 'Plumber Girl.' " She went on to describe how they taunted her about the fact that she didn't need to go to school—she could just be a plumber like her father.
Simon was bowled over by the incident. But her experience was hardly isolated. Bullying over presumed financial status is real. In fact, 25% of students are bullied.
In this case, not only do you need to begin doing some teaching at home—like the fact that all occupations are important and that we are not what we do for a living, but you may also want to alert a teacher or principal to the problem.
Not all comparisonitis can be nipped in the bud by us, but by being aware that it exists, we can all become better parents.
Neale S. Godfrey is the author of 17 books on money, life skills, and value issues, including the #1 New York Times best-seller "Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children." She was one of the first female executives at The Chase Manhattan Bank and later became the president of The First Women’s Bank and founder of The First Children’s Bank. In 1989, she formed her own company, Children’s Financial Network, Inc., whose mission is to educate children and their parents about money.
*Indicates that name has been changed.